Signs of different minds

Most of us have our preferences for how we work, some of us secretly decide that others with different ways are held back in their tasks by missing some critical process. Other people may merely wonder how those who think differently get anything done. A manager might usefully pause here to work out how to get the best of a team with some rather unusual thinkers in the mix. It’s a little bit like tending a garden - what looks like a weed might be more of an exotic species worth learning more about.

In a working garden, you might wander around between the flower beds, past a vegetable patch at lunch time when the gardeners have downed tools for a break. Some of the work looks like it was finished mere moments ago, spades and fertiliser put neatly away. Other areas look a lot messier, the work appears half done with a wheelbarrow full of garden waste in the path, tools spread around and a hose stretched across from the tap. There might be more going on here too - the sun shining, fresh air and scents waft from nearby roses, you might enjoy a little space around you as take in the work in progress.

Let’s jump to a working week in the city. Picture a senior office dweller, a team leader or manager, still at work early evening when most people have gone. She's wandering away from her team’s area of the office on her way to the lift, casting her eye over a line of desks and wondering who lives there, perhaps colouring in some details from what she sees.

I recall two floors of engineers' workstations in Melbourne viewed after 6pm on a Friday. The difference between desks was startling. Several desks were piled high with stuff (insert here your own list of real life objects like paper, cables and gadgets) a hunt for pristine desks was close to fruitless. On one desk, seemingly edged to the side, a noise cancelling headset sat defiantly blinking as it charged. The set up here screamed that this desk dweller had made some different choices.

If you were one of the other desk owners, what's needed by this solo coworker to work well seems hidden. For a team leader or manager, this game of desk voyeurism might take on new meaning. You could well miss out on information that as a team leader would make an instant difference to what work got done and how well, yet all you have is some clues of cables, coffee cups, and the hint that at least one person sets themselves apart, but why?

We generally do things for a reason, even if that is not clear to others or even to ourselves. We might not be able to explain it, yet just like a gardener leaves clues about his work, his weekday desk also leaves clues.

One way of looking this situation is that there are at least two levels we can work with, the first is that each person has an internal model of how their particular work is done or more likely just a loose construction of habits, procedure and body-based memories and that we call on and the second is that an external model functions as the trace of these processes that others can see in the physical places we work.

In other words, we leave hints of what's needed in and around us. Other people may use different ways of reasoning what these mean in terms of how we're setting up internally as we work.

Not all of us are wired the same way. Your most valuable worker might be driven to distraction by the rumble and dinging of the lift and a blinking fluoro tube. Another needs to be close to the project board to keep their work on track. It’s also not just a person’s preferences, but what the work itself needs to get finished. For some jobs, work can be done in small chunks and might not need paper, another job runs for months with hundreds of drawings, compared, marked up and shared. Here the question to print or not to print is not clearly linked to the person or the work but a blend of both.

Here's some things you could do as a coworker:

  • Set an intent to understand why others work the way they do

  • When you've found an interesting observation, find a way to ask them or learn more

  • Look for more models of what is out there from #1 and #2 – is there a pattern here?

  • Get someone else to ask you open questions about what the purpose is behind how you do things

If you are a manager, you can take an extra very powerful step:

  • See how you could open up the conversation within the team of the person whose workstyle puzzles you

This is World Autism Awareness Week. Have you noticed someone whose work might be ‘missing in action’ in your community or workplace simply because between us all we’ve missed noticing what they need to do great work?